There are times during a tough ultramarathon—and I’ve never done one that wasn’t tough in some way—when you try to gain some perspective by thinking of, say, the Bataan Death March. This isn’t that, you remind yourself sternly. No one’s forcing you to do this, and no one’s gonna die one way or another. Suck it up and keep moving. You remind yourself of all that, yes, and yet it does not always succeed in making you feel better. Sometimes all your perspective is reduced to a single view, that of the trail ahead of you, and it’s a view so ghastly you can only think of your own abject misery.
I didn’t actually run an ultramarathon last weekend—I didn’t run any race at all. Instead I paced a couple of friends in their attempt to do a hundred miler. I rather enjoy pacing people in long races, playing a part, however small, in helping them achieve a cherished goal. What’s more, because pacers do only a fraction of the total race distance, they’re always running on fresher, stronger legs than the runner they’re pacing. This means there’s no pressure to push yourself, no danger that you won’t perform up to expectations, because you’re never running beyond your limits. This, at least, had been my experience up until Saturday evening, after it had been pouring rain all day, and continued to do so as I readied for a 17-mile loop on the Indiana Trail.
I had never run this particular trail before, but based on a video one of my runners posted, it looked like the kind of trail I would love. Plenty of trees, a few creeks to cross, a bunch of hills to climb, nothing too strenuous, all of it scenic. I suppose if I go back to run it someday in the future, it might indeed be as enjoyable as I envisioned. As it was, however, trees meant rooty trip hazards, creeks meant deep mud, hills meant mudslides, and as for scenic, I ran most of the way in the dark staring fixedly at the mud in front of me desperately trying to avoid a close-up view. All noble thoughts of helping my runners achieve their goal got washed away in the deluge as my world became reduced to one goal: get through this miserable motherfucking ordeal without going down.
And so there I was, The Worst Pacer Ever. My runners had already done 51 miles in this slop and I could barely keep up with them. They had “hired” me to keep them going and keep their spirits up, and there I was wondering why in the hell anyone would want to do such a horrific thing as this. The rain and the mud were not merely annoying and messy. We were wet and cold, and stayed that way, and the constant sliding and twisting of our bodies with each step meant that we moved almost as much backwards and sideways as forward, and our muscles were being wrung like dishrags. It was as if all of Mother Nature had non-stop diarrhea, and we had to wade through it.
Still I tried to do my pacing duties as best I could. I sang songs, told jokes, and muled as much of their gear as possible—and let me tell you, hundred milers carry a lot of gear, to the point where I found myself shelpping three headlamps, two pairs of gloves, a poncho, a packet of wet-naps, several baggies of food, and a few other things I wasn’t sure what they were, fervently hoping I wouldn’t take a spill and drop every last thing into a ravine. I rah-rah’d. I yay-you’d. I reminded my runners when they needed to eat, when they should slow down or speed up, how much time they were spending at the aid station, how much time they would have to complete the loop if they wanted to meet the cutoff time—as if I really knew what I was talking about, never having run a hundred myself, and not right now having any desire to do so.
None of that was enough. In the end, knowing they weren’t going to make the cutoffs, my runners DNF’d at the end of the loop. It was nearly 1:30am; they’d been running since 6am the previous morning through all that muck and yuck, and nobody with sense would think badly of them for dropping the race. Indeed, anyone with sense would question trying to do this in the first place. This wasn’t their first attempt; each had successfully done this distance before, but as one runner put it, who wants to be a “one and done”? Lots of people do, of course, with even more wanting to be “none and done” when it comes to the prospect of moving quickly and continuously for what usually ends up being around a full day. But I knew what she meant. There’s something intensely irksome to hard-core runners about “bucket listers,” the people who just want to say they did it so they never have to do it again. If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we’ll admit that our irkedness is really insecurity. We want to be hard-core, but we’re afraid that we aren’t, that we’re the worst kind of poseur.
“I guess that one time was a fluke,” my runner friend said wryly at the end of our loop. She had successfully completed the first hundred she’d ever attempted, but since then there had been nothing but DNF’s as she struggled to escape one-and-done status.
I looked at her, both of us shivering, caked in mud, and the rah-rah died in my throat. How in the world could I convince her there was no “fluking” going on here? Most of the time I can’t even convince myself I’m not a complete fraud at life. And anyway, I was sure she’d do what I do in this situation, when a well-meaning and deeply sincere friend assures me of my awesomeness: smile wanly and not believe a word.
I guess the answer to the question “how do we know we’re for real and not frauds?” is to not care one way or another, to just keep doing your thing until you can’t, and when that happens, when you can’t any more, you shrug your tired shoulders, put on some clean, dry clothes and drink some chicken soup. The runners’ tent is damp and smelly, but the chicken soup is deliciously salty and warm, and look, there are your friends, smiling at you, saying good job, and meaning it, and you do feel kind of good, and kind of lousy, yeah, maybe a lot lousy, but whatever it is you feel, you know that’s the for-real part of it all, whatever experience you just had, grand or ghastly, it did in fact just happen to you—and could just happen again.